Schooled Reporting on education

Restorative justice in the classroom

Education | A study to reduce out-of-school suspension gets mixed results
by Laura Edghill
Posted 1/23/19, 04:36 pm

Pittsburgh Public Schools reduced suspensions but reported troubling racial disparities in test scores following the recent implementation of a sweeping restorative justice initiative. A study of the program by the Rand Corporation, funded by a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, found that “proactively improving relationships among students and staff and building a sense of community in classrooms and schools may make students less inclined to misbehave.”

In an era when school safety concerns abound, districts often struggle to balance removing potentially disruptive students from the school environment with equipping those same students to succeed academically. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama issued guidance to schools to address racial disparities in suspension rates that appeared to target African-American and Hispanic students disproportionately.

Restorative justice techniques, many of which are based on Biblical approaches to reconciliation, have been successful in criminal justice settings but received mixed reviews in schools. The Rand study claims to be the first to objectively track what happens when those techniques are used to mitigate school suspension rates.

The techniques aim to encourage empathy, community, and compassion. In Pittsburgh, teachers led class discussions in which students shared high and low points affecting them at the moment. The program encouraged teachers to be flexible in meting out disciplinary actions for students and take time to discuss the infraction and find a resolution that did not require a suspension. While not explicitly prohibited, suspensions were strongly discouraged.

Some teachers reported that the class discussions seemed helpful, but others cited challenges such as students talking over one another and even mocking something personal a teacher shared in an effort to model the process.

Suspension rates decreased—more so for African-American and low-income students, shrinking the troubling gap that prompted the program in the first place.

But test scores for those same vulnerable students inexplicably suffered even though they remained in class rather than out of school for suspensions. The study offered several possible explanations for the drop, including the simple fact that discussion circles and other restorative justice techniques took up classroom time that might otherwise have been used for direct instruction.

“Teachers described the immense amount of curriculum they were obliged to cover and the assessments they had to prepare students for,” researchers wrote. “In light of those responsibilities, sparing 20-plus minutes for circles to build community or respond to conflict in the classroom seemed an insurmountable challenge to some.”

The Trump administration rescinded the 2014 guidance about suspensions last month on the recommendation of the school safety commission, formed after last year’s deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The commission concluded restorative justice techniques had merit but should not be used in lieu of real punishments for violent and aggressive individuals.

Associated Press/Photo by Julia Wall/The News & Observer Associated Press/Photo by Julia Wall/The News & Observer Workers remove the base of the “Silent Sam” statue from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus on Jan. 15.

Confederate controversy

The chancellor of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will step down at the end of the month following a controversy over the removal of a Confederate monument from the campus.

Citing ongoing campus safety concerns, Chancellor Carol Folt authorized the Jan. 15 unannounced, late-night take down of the stone base and bronze tablets that marked “Silent Sam,” the sculpture of a soldier that protesters pulled down in August 2018.

“Despite our best efforts, even since that time, threats have continued to grow and place our community at serious risk. This led me to the action that I authorized,” Folt said. “While I recognize that some may not agree with my decision to remove the base and tablets now, I’m confident that this was the right one for our community.”

The statue was erected in 1913 as a memorial to students and alumni who fought and died for the Confederacy in the Civil War but also served as a reminder of the South’s history of racism.

Before Folt took action, the university Board of Governors was already working on a possible relocation plan for the statue, which has been in storage since its removal. Board Chairman Harry Smith said the group wanted to have a relocation plan by mid-March.

Folt’s surprise move prompted the board to demand she leave her post at the end of the month even though she had already said she would depart at the end of the school year in May. The removal of the statue base and tablets initially drew an angry response from Smith, but he denied that the board was punishing Folt by demanding her immediate exit.

“We take a look at what we think is the very best for the institution,” Smith said. “We feel strongly that it’s probably in the best interest to go ahead and allow a change in leadership so we can move to a healing process.” —L.E.

Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster Karen Pence

Job pressure

Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, went back to school last week. The 25-year teaching veteran returned to northern Virginia’s Immanuel Christian School to teach elementary art. (Pence previously taught at the school for 12 years while her husband served in the U.S. House of Representatives.) She immediately came under attack for the decision because Immanuel upholds orthodox Biblical teaching on human sexuality.

The school’s employment application says “homosexual or lesbian sexual activity” disqualifies potential candidates, and it maintains the right to intervene if the conduct within a student’s home is counter to a Biblical lifestyle, including “homosexual activity or bisexual activity.”

LGBT activists piled criticism on Pence, and headlines played up the school’s policy. “It’s absurd that her decision to teach art to children at a Christian school, and the school’s religious beliefs, are under attack,” Kara Brooks, a spokeswoman for Pence, told The Washington Post.

The vice president also weighed in, telling EWTN that the United States has a rich tradition of religious education and that “to see major news organizations attacking Christian education is deeply offensive to us.” —L.E.

Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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